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The Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement


Marissa Quie is a Fellow and Director of Studies in Human, Social and Political Science (HSPS) at Lucy Cavendish College, Lecturer in Politics at Magdalene College and an Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of Sociology. However,

    Marissa's “most important job” is Convener of the Afghanistan Desk at the Cambridge Refugee Hub. 

Born in Afghanistan, Marissa held Afghan citizenship until the events of 9/11.  She was involved in the first peace talks, with the Taliban, when she was seconded from the United Nations Development Programme, to advise the Afghan government on the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme (APRP), the precursor to the Doha talks. She worked in the Joint Secretariat which designed, coordinated and implemented strategies for peace.

Dr Quie has worked on joint projects with the independent policy institute, Chatham House and UNICEF Innocenti. The project she did for Chatham House considered prospects for the return of refugees before the Taliban took over. She also provided research for the House of Lords on the ways in which regional powers shape Afghanistan’s political and security environment. She has analysed the impact, on Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, of hosting the vast majority of Afghanistan’s refugees. She later investigated the consequences of family separation for Afghan refugees coming to the UK.

She was the principal investigator, for a project on STEAM education in Afghanistan commissioned by Roya Mahboob, Founder of the Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team, funded by Virgin Unite. A project goal, as yet unfulfilled due to the Taliban’s prohibitions on education for girls, was to set up a Dreamers Academy bridging secondary and higher education within Kabul University.

Marissa is on the board of The Afghanistan Society, the Afghan refugee and information network that aims to showcase Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage, to promote awareness and dialogue, and to engender solidarity. She is also, a trustee of several education initiatives including the OXUS Academy, and on the Global Challenges Steering Group at Cambridge.


Let’s talk about the Afghanistan Desk?

When the Taliban took over, Afghanistan suffered an extreme crisis that's ongoing; that's often being displaced in the news by other crises. The Desk is a way of keeping people focused on what's happening there. We draw on university expertise, in a volunteer form, to support efforts to help Afghan women, minorities and refugees in the current situation. Through our Forum on the Future of Afghanistan we try to create a safe space for dialogue on pathways to lasting peace.  These activities are fundamentally related to research. The purpose of the desks in The Refugee Hub is to explore conflict, how conflicts are generated and what happens in situations of conflict, and to think in a more integrated way about what kinds of solutions can be offered through research and through collaborative work within a university setting. A key focus for the Desk is dialogue around the future of Afghanistan.  The Desk is involved in discussions with stakeholders in the Doha talks and supporting research on inclusive governance.


As convener of the Afghanistan Desk, what are the main initiatives you’re leading on?

In 2023 the Desk launched the first phase of a programme to create a ‘Youth Forum on the Future of Afghanistan’ in collaboration with Governance and Reform Advisory (GRA) and Omid International. The goal is to establish a diverse and representative Afghan-led platform to share youth perspectives and to explore solutions on the issues that most matter to them. As talks within the Doha framework struggle to gain traction on inclusive governance, nurturing the leadership potential of Afghanistan’s most precious resource, its youth, is vital. The first gathering focused on establishing constructive dialogue on education, the rights of women and minorities, peace and reconciliation. It was envisaged as a catalyst for a wider and longer- term forum, spanning another year with regular meetings to analyse the critical challenges and potential solutions to conflict in Afghanistan. In line with our emphasis on inclusivity, further meetings are planned in areas where Afghan refugees have settled, including Turkey and Tajikistan. We also hope to bring some of the Forum’s young leaders to the University as Visiting Fellows to facilitate knowledge exchanges with experts at Cambridge. Omid International will develop a documentary on the evolution of the Forum.

Together with Voice of America we've been delivering a course in English for academic purposes for Rahela Trust scholars who were forced to abandon their studies when the Taliban retook control. The objective of the programme is to enable female university students to access remote university courses that are mainly delivered in English. To complement these classes, we began planning a training programme for volunteer mentors from the Cambridge community. They'll be matched with scholars to give them additional support. Our work with the Trust highlights the fact that mobility today, and increasingly in the future, isn't always physical. It can also be virtual and digital. Advanced digital technologies facilitate connections and collaborations amidst the gender apartheid of the Taliban.

We've also provided English classes for refugees supported by Future Brilliance in Pakistan, who require IELTS and other English proficiency exams to enter anglophone countries. Together with Future Brilliance, we're planning an intensive long weekend, at Cambridge, for young refugees and we want to offer workshops to help with university applications, personal statements, and employment opportunities. We hope to extend the mentor programme to connect with the students involved in this.

Our liaison with the Myanmar Desk at the Centre has been fruitful. In liaison with the Afghanistan Capacity Development and Educational Organisation (ACDEO) and BAAG (the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan group), we have been exploring the development of a mental health app for Afghan families. On Refugee Day, in June 2024, the Afghanistan Desk will run a stall together with the Afghanistan Society selling Afghan food.


Tell me about your research?

I began going back to Afghanistan to work on development programmes from 2005 onwards.

     I've been both a theoretician and a practitioner and I think that's really helped to ground my research.

Since 2005, I've been closely engaged in research on Afghanistan and projects to support education, conflict resolution, peace, inclusive governance and the rights of women and minorities. My research also touches on rethinking approaches to migration, immigration, the negative consequences of migration management and asymmetrical deals between Europe, the UK and nations in the Global South. Some of that research looks more specifically at the UK's approach to Afghanistan and the gaps between rhetoric and reality and post-Brexit policies on immigration.

My research engages with critical security studies and motifs for participation and protection that characterise debates about marginalised groups in the migration pathway and in Afghanistan.

Working with the former Afghan government for the peace programme was a huge privilege. The programme was a rich source for different research projects that I've conducted since then. Reflecting on the challenges of constructing peace, led me to probe the linkages between democracy and peace. Conflicting objectives are often problematised as challenges to the effectiveness of international democracy promotion. However, systematic research about their emergence and effects is lacking.

I joined a project led by Julia Leninger and Sonja Grimm with the External Democratisation (EDF) Policies Research Network, funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG).  We tried to address gaps in the literature and to offer conceptual and empirical answers in the field of conflicting objectives and in international democracy promotion. My chapter centred on conflicting objectives between international actors and Afghan actors in a peace programme. It also uncovered differences within these groups.  Disconnected government and military directives led to a clash between externally and locally driven positions. The international bias towards centralised forms of democracy, which historically had failed in Afghanistan, undermined Afghan efforts to leverage grassroots support in reconciling with the Taliban.

A vital part of my remit in the peace programme was working with women's groups.  Engaging with them made me question Eurocentric approaches to the women, peace and security agenda (WPS). The WPS agenda both marginalises and fails to recognise important forms of participation.  As efforts to achieve inclusive governance in Afghanistan go forward, through the Doha framework, recognition of diverse visions of peace is critical. Afghanistan’s history shows how exclusion fuels conflict and polarisation.

I have long been interested in the different ways that women, and particularly women in Afghanistan and Afghans in the migration pathway, conceptualise security. I first investigated the idea of subjective security in a book edited by Michel Gueldry called, Understanding New Security Threats. The book is a multidisciplinary exploration of the weaknesses in traditional notions of security.  My chapter centred on non-traditional notions of security through the lens of sexual and reproductive health rights. I connected gender sexuality and security through a concept I developed called the biopolitical security nexus, showing why they matter and why politicians deny their significance. The form of subjective security that emerges from this analysis is just one aspect of the multi-layered landscape that generates global movement.

The biopolitical security nexus (BPSN) connects gender, sexuality, security and violence, examining why they matter and why policymakers deny their significance. As a multidimensional analytical tool, the BPSN helps us to recognise the linkages between seemingly disparate forms of violence – from intimate partner violence to interstate violence. It includes violence against women (VAW) and gender-based violence (GBV).

Sexual reproductive health rights are interwoven into the Nexus demonstrating the need for expanding mainstream human rights discourses to include sexuality-related issues. Intersectionality is also incorporated, providing a way of conceptualising the relations between forms of oppression and violence that construct multiple identities including race, religion, social class and nationality.

The Nexus points towards wider notions of security underlining reproductive justice – reflecting on how and when women have children and whether they have the resources to care for them. The BPSN notes that security is always more than survival. It entails freedom from life-determining threats and the emancipatory space in which to make choices.


I continued probing subjective security in depth in a chapter for a book, that recently came out, called ‘Migration Culture and Identity, edited by Helen Underhill, Yasmine Shamma, Vicky Squire and Suzan Ilcan, part of a series on the ‘Politics of Citizenship and Migration’ published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Recently, I've been writing about trust, coercion and betrayal for a multidisciplinary book published through Routledge by scholars at, my college, Lucy Cavendish.

During the last decade there's been an increasing recognition that migration is mixed in the sense that movement can't be neatly classified as forced or voluntary or as economic or humanitarian. Distinctions between migrants and refugees are similarly problematic. Instead, we need to account for mixed and fluid rationales, which can change as individuals and their families move through the migration pathway.

My chapter contributes to conceptual and empirical debates on forced migration by looking at the thorny relationship between trust, coercion and agency.  In challenging reductive interpretations of migration, I record testimonies of Afghans who gained entrance to the United Kingdom through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement scheme (ACRS) and the stories of those who've been left behind. Immobility is also a critical part of the migration pathway.  

A new strand of my research looks at how erosion of trust connects with forced migration and illegal pathways. Afghans make up the second largest nationality crossing the Channel in small boats. I'm beginning a project analysing why they “choose” these routes.  Preliminary interviews show that many Afghans arriving in this way do meet criteria to enter the UK through legal pathways and had been promised sanctuary. Failure to honour previous commitments may be integral to explaining the decision to take illegal pathways. The example of the British-trained Afghan special forces unit called ‘The Triples’ is a case in point. 


When the Taliban swept to power in August 2021, members of Afghan Special Forces units CF 333 and ATF 444 - known as the "Triples" - were among the groups most at risk of reprisal, having supported UK Special Forces in their fight against the Taliban. They were eligible to apply for resettlement to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP)) scheme, but hundreds had their applications rejected. Dozens have reportedly been beaten, tortured, or killed by the Taliban since.  The Ministry of Defence said it was conducting an independent review.


Where to put your research efforts do you to prioritise, how do you prioritise?

My research efforts are very much driven by the situation of Afghans who remain in Afghanistan, who supported a vision that’s different from the one that the Taliban offer. And those who believed the Taliban had changed before they reneged on promises made in Doha.

    The situation of women and minorities is most important, and their courage is a deep source of inspiration.



From your research, can you pinpoint anything that if adopted now would have a big impact on the situation?

I think honouring the commitments made by governments, firstly on legal pathways would make a difference. Follow through after arrival is also vital. Lack of joined up thinking has resulted in homelessness for some, dispersal for others to areas where there aren't other people of colour, or Muslims, and where they’re unable to integrate. Lack of support for young Afghans when it comes to seeking higher education and problems around transferring qualifications that refugees bring with them, into qualifications that are recognised in the UK hinder potential and the kinds of contributions Afghans would like to make if they were given coherent support for resettlement.

The UK was and is a significant actor in the quest for peace and security in Afghanistan. We must continue to promote dialogue with the Taliban and advocate for gender equality, the protection of minority rights and inclusive governance.


What are the most pressing issues and the challenges you face in your field?

Inadequate legal pathways directly contribute to so called “irregular migration,” placing lives at risk and facilitating human trafficking and people smuggling. For those left behind, failure to honour commitments on migration can mean torture and death.

The Taliban’s victory in 2021 resulted in 2.6m Afghan refugees registering with UNHCR in countries outside Afghanistan. This figure likely underestimates the actual scale of displacement since it excludes migrants not registered by UNHCR. The exact number of individuals accepted under the ACRS, their categorisation, and the number still in Afghanistan confronting Taliban threats, is unclear. Although the government claims that over 21,000 Afghan refugees have been resettled in the UK since 2021, detailed breakdowns of each resettlement scheme’s support are currently unavailable, complicating accurate evaluations.

Approximately 2,000 Afghans arrived before Operation Pitting, while 15,000 participated in the operation itself. Ambiguities surrounding who is included in the ACRS remain. The Home Office claims that 6,300 Afghans, including activists, journalists, scholars, and LGBT+ community members, have been brought to safety through ACRS. However, the Refugee Council (2022) is sceptical about including previous arrivals as it obfuscates actual numbers of people brought to safety.

The unfolding of Pathway 2 has been similarly obscure. Initiated in January 2022, with the Home Office tasked with approving each case following a review of the UNHCR referrals, the government expected to resettle approximately 2,000 refugees within the first year. Yet the Resettlement Data Finder reveals that of 1,555 Afghan cases referred by UNHCR in 2022, only 72 individuals were eventually resettled in the UK, a success rate of less than 5%. By comparison, Canada resettled 54% of its referred cases, or 1,011 out of 1,857 Afghans, according to UNHCR data. One key reason for this stark difference could be the UK government’s covert decision, revealed in response to a written parliamentary question in September 2022, to make resettlement contingent upon securing ‘suitable accommodation’ before arrival in the UK (UK Parliament, 2022).

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy is similarly contested. It is undermined by practical and procedural obstacles to making applications, particularly the requirement to attend a visa application centre in a neighbouring country and to provide extensive documentation and evidence. The Taliban have been notoriously slow in issuing new passports, and many Afghans who supported the UK mission live in hiding at risk. For those who do make it to countries such as Pakistan, delays can mean deportation and further danger. In general, the narrow scope of the Afghan and family migration provisions implies continued use of “illegal” routes now and in the future.

Migration is one of the most salient issues of our time.  It's one of the most important issues worldwide particularly during elections where populist candidates have tried to weaponise it, for example during Brexit and the election of Donald Trump the first time. I think there's a growing recognition that migration studies have been far too narrow, too migration centric. My work on peace and conflict made me realise that migration isn't simply a response to localised development imbalances, oppression or solution to war or poverty, rather it's interwoven into wider processes of technological environmental and demographic change globalisation, urbanisation, development and more.

As my research on trust and coercion shows, migration is often not a simple choice by individual migrants or their families but rather a structural consequence of international and regional shifts in political, economy and environmental issues, such as climate change, that disproportionately affect nations in the Global South. Focusing on migrants in a vacuum as many populist politicians do, obscures the significance of this bigger picture. Contemporary politicians frame migration as a ‘crisis’ but what we too often forget, is that movement across borders has existed for millennia. In the case of Afghanistan, it was once a core part of the Silk Road, the wider historical picture, the longue durée of people-to-people connections and movement across Eurasia has to be taken into account.

Sovereign borders in the region have always been porous, these mobilities are deeply embedded in, and of historic significance to Afghanistan and the region. And I think this characteristic is a strength to be reinforced rather than a problem to be solved. Spatio-temporal factors will likewise be critical in understanding movement emerging from conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Myanmar, Venezuela and beyond.

The suffering of migrants from the Global South puts practical issues at the forefront.  We have to think beyond pervasive crisis rhetoric and short-term interventions about how to develop sustainable and integrated approaches that foster self-reliance and security.

The rise of global movement is both a challenge and an opportunity. For example, demographers predict that 30 million working-age Europeans could ‘disappear’ by the year 2050. The Lancet forecasts an accelerating decline in fertility worldwide. There are huge shifts in age structure forecasted that could force us to re-imagine families and societies.

We need to ask how migration can be reframed as a solution. Some demographers forecast that there will be competition between nations to attract shrinking pools of young migrants yet, counter to this demographic and economic logic, immigration was at the heart of both the UK’s decision to exit the EU and Donald Trump’s first US presidential election.

Populism has far-reaching consequences. Border walls, fortification of frontiers, externalisation of immigration and deportation, for example the UK’s Rwanda Plan, generates new threats. In insecure societies with a youth bulge, extremism and the temptation to get involved in crime may be the only options for those without the vital lifeline of remittances. Despite what populist leaders claim, deportation doesn't neatly correlate with ‘return’. Experiences of stigmatisation can create exponential layers of new violence.

So, if immigration, as a solution to declining populations eventually prevails, how can we make it work? We have to think beyond short-term assistance to migrants and develop locally integrated approaches that foster self-reliance.  To stem the horrific waste of lost human capital, holistic community-based solutions can help to mitigate against hostility to newcomers. All communities benefit from better education, quality health services and affordable housing. A focus on ending inequity, valuing dignity and promoting justice are paramount.


What would you hope from the University to advance your initiatives at the Afghanistan Desk?

The University is a rich source of expertise and innovation. We're grateful to the Cambridge Partnership for Education who participated in our Forum on the Future of Afghanistan and contributed to constructive dialogue. We are still trying to get more support for diaspora education initiatives, particularly in terms of curriculum development and advice around delivering education in conflict.  The Desk’s own initiatives would benefit from volunteers. We can offer a brief programme teaching them how to teach English but support from those who have experience already would be wonderful. We also need volunteers who would like to be mentors and we have a brief training programme starting in April 2024. Afghan students who’ve been prohibited from attending university would like to have contact with members of the University who are medics, engineers and academics in business studies and other areas. In practical terms, in order to deliver courses in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, we need to collect used laptops and tablets and smartphones to go to students to access the programme.


Do you have a final thought that you’d like to share?

The Taliban victory was an indescribably painful moment. Many Afghans who put their lives on the line to pursue democracy and peace have been left behind. The withdrawal could have been handled more sensitively and there are important lessons we need to learn in the failures of intervention.   Broken promises made by the West to protect those who supported an open and stable vision for the future have left many Afghans with no option but to flee.  Yet the majority have been forced to remain. They live half lives in hiding. I have many friends who are in hiding.  Women have only a bare existence. Gender apartheid has rendered Afghanistan a prison for half of its population. If we care about those who suffer tyranny, expanded legal pathways can make a difference. Movement along the migration pathway is almost never linear. And lived experiences of intense suffering have widespread consequences.  Capturing those lived experiences is important to me. For those who have been fortunate enough to enter the Global North via legal pathways, lack of integrated and sustained support means lost human capital, undermining what Afghans could and would like to contribute to their new homes. Support for Afghan refugees is too often undermined by disorganised resettlement schemes which contradict the politics of welcome and unfold alongside a contrasting politics of exclusion. In the case of the UK this is reinforced by the Nationality and Borders Act (2022) and the Illegal Migration Act. This legislation not only restricts legal avenues for entry but also creates a false dichotomy between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ asylum seekers, with the express intent of deporting anyone entering the UK illegally to a so-called ‘safe’ third country.


Many in the diaspora will be the leaders of the future and nurturing their potential is crucial.  The emphasis of the Desk here is on Afghan-led dialogue and knowledge exchange to reduce conflict and to foster an inclusive vision of peace.